How to map an archive collection

How to map an archive collection

Want to get to grips with the contents and overall shape of an archive collection, when you’ve never come across it before? It can be done! And in doing it, it helps to start with some basic practical but important questions (rather than fancy intellectual ones). These questions are:

  1. How is the collection organised?
  2. What are its main contents concerned with, its overall themes and concerns?
  3. Are its contents either in whole or part relevant to your particular research topic? And if so, what aspects more exactly?
  4. What if anything would it be helpful to record now, at first acquaintance with the collection, concerning its organisation, overall content and particular aspects (doing so, for instance, by writing notes in notebook or computer file or perhaps making an entry in a database)? And should JPEGs of documents also be made, if this is permitted by the archive in question?
  5. How to decide if a collection’s contents are important enough to your research to later carry out more detailed work on it? And what should such more detailed work consist of?

The collection I shall tackle these questions around is composed by the papers of a well-known Kimberley (South Africa) man, a jack of all trades and entrepreneurial farmer turned diamond mine owner, George Paton. Paton was among other things for some years a close associate of Cecil Rhodes and with Rhodes he was one of the MPs for the Barkly West constituency in the Cape Parliament. There are 16 over-sized boxes of his papers, and a rather brief inventory.

In around seven focused hours of concentrated work (no breaks, no lunch, no little chats etc) I was able to (a) answer all of the above questions, (b) make some scratty working notes in a notebook, (c) write 4 pages of structured notes in a Word file, (d) jpeg the key finding aids (in this example, an inventory) and also some interesting items in the collection I came across, and (d) make decisions about whether any future work on the collection might be carried out.

‘How to…’ regarding the Paton collection went as follows, although all of these points are also transferable to other collections:

Read the inventory very thoroughly, for when such a thing exists it tells the researcher what the shape of a collection is, as this was seen by an archivist who, when it was being compiled, was also in process of trying to make sense of the collection.

Call up some materials from each of the main sections of the collection as signalled by the inventory – this may look something like, personal & family letters, company papers, notebooks, letter-books and so on. Then skim-read a file or box of documents from each section of the collection, to get a sense of them and to make short aide memoir notes about them.

Call up the box or boxes holding the earliest dated items, then skim-read through contents to get a broad sense of what they’re concerned with and make some aide memoir notes on this.

Ditto the latest dated items in the collection.

Ditto a box in the middle.

Decide provisionally what are the most interesting aspects of the items you’ve looked at. For me regarding this collection, this was (a) the early more open and far less controlled phase of diamond mining, (b) the Newlands Diamond Mining Company that Paton established and which later failed because of what he saw as a shareholders’ plot, which I was intrigued by.

Call up more ofnthe items related to the things you’ve found most interesting, and read them rather more carefully, also making more notes about them.

Decide what to JPEG, and RESIST jpeging the whole lot! This just defers the problem of figuring things out. In the case of the Paton collection, I jpeged the inventory, a scattering of letters about land purchases as this often entailed the disappropriation and removal of black people, some items mentioning the Diggers Revolution in early mining days, and about the Newlands Company. Before doing this, I made a file structure with these headings, and so that each bit was jpeged then downloaded here I could easily find it again.

Search the catalogue for anything else on Paton or the company.

Read through everything you’ve written, and add to it later thoughts.

Sit and think, while going over your notebook, aide memoir notes, computer notes or database entries, and add any more useful things you think of.

Some answers to the basic questions outlined above are:

  1. I gained a good overview of the Paton collection, including of the detail that lies beneath the spare headings in a very schematic inventory.
  2. Its main themes are outlined below.
  3. I concluded it was interesting, but not directly relevant because it lacks lots of letters and is of a short time period.
  4. I made brief notes in a notebook as I went along. I also recorded brief notes on every item I read, together with its meta-data (archive and collection reference, date, writer, named recipient, address etc) for referencing purposes (NB. I used a database for this, but a Word file would work OK). At the end of the day, I wrote an overviewing document in a Word file, and then I make JPEGs of the inventory and about 15 documents I found interesting.
  5. I made a decision that the Paton collection was not relevant and sufficient enough to be part of WWW, but that it was a little diamond mine for someone interested in Kimberley, diamond and gold, and (failed) Randlords.

Some more detail about this conclusion is that:

Yes, the Paton collection was interesting to go through, but just as a side-interest of mine in research terms. This is because there aren’t enough family letters in it, and it doesn’t cover a long enough period of time, for it to have more importance than this in the context of the WWW project. It’s most interesting aspect is that it documents the rise and fall of a ‘failed Randlord’, with this deriving from the machinations of Rhodes and his henchmen and Paton’s relationship to such things. The collection, because of covering this, provides an excellent inroad into the early days of diamond mining, land buying and deals, the later stage of company formation, and the ‘fall’ of Paton and what had been a successful diamond mining company. George Paton died in 1914. However, the mine continued under other ownership for some decades before being declared unprofitable, and the collection includes papers on this later stage too. Matters of ‘race’ and ethnicity are implicit in the organisation of mining and its hierarchies and divisions of labour, so there are interesting things to be explored on this. Some specific sections of the collection open this up for some quite detailed consideration. And future work? Yes – but for me this would be because of curiosity and general interest’s sake, although I can also envisage working on it with a PhD student for whom this collection would be more directly relevant.

Finding these things out, having a nice time, compiling a decent set of notes and records, and copying a few interesting documents, took one day’s work, a day I consider well spent. Although the Paton collection isn’t massive it’s still quite large, and what I did shows how just much can, with a decent simple plan, be got through in a day’s work. People, usually beginners, have said to me they don’t have time to do anything like the above, they just scratt through hoping something will leap out at them. Hmmm. Sounds a bit of a waste to me – at least I understand how the Paton collection works, what its contents are and some highlights of these – AND I found a few interesting things for WWW as well.

Last updated: 1 May 2015


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